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Beating the Rep

Forget everything you thought you knew about Jalapenos

I was surprised to discover that Jalapenos restaurant, in business at the you-can't-miss-it intersection of Kirby and Westheimer for more than a decade, has been almost completely overlooked by my inside-the-Loop dining pals. Strange myths and misconceptions abound.

"Isn't Jalapenos a chain?" asked a friend, disdainfully curling his lip. "I heard it's just microwave Mexican," another grumbled.

"I went there once," explained a third. "They had a straw palapa roof over the bar that kept sticking me in the forehead. I was afraid it would poke my eyes out. So I never went back."

Despite all this nay-saying, I was determined to try the place. For one thing, you can never have too many sources of good Tex-Mex. (I'm still hoping to replace my favorite Pico's location, at Kirby and 59, which closed years ago.) For another, I'd heard that Jalapenos recently revamped its menu, concocting a number of tempting new grilled items leaning more toward pan-Latino cuisine. Seductive whispers reached my ears, tales of dishes spiked with achiote or chimichurri, chilies stuffed with raisins and apples, and calamari flamed with brandy.

"We've revised our menu before," explains Mario Romero, one of Jalapenos' owners. "After all, we've been in business for 12 years. But this time was the most ambitious. Our chef, Secco Moran, traveled all over Peru, Costa Rica and of course Mexico to find new flavors and ingredients. And more new additions to the menu are still to come."

The clincher, now that balmy evenings are briefly here, was the addition of an outdoor patio and, even better, a barfly-friendly botanas menu. This latest intelligence demanded my careful investigation.

Preliminary research reveals that Jalapenos is not a chain. Three former college roommates own it: brothers Tomas and Mario Romero, and Jaime Crespo. The partners opened the first Jalapenos in Cancun, Mexico, which possibly seeded the scurrilous franchise rumor. They've since sold that one but fortunately kept this one. Nor are they zapping prefab food in the microwave. And the prickly palapa that menaced my poor friend is history, I am happy to report, removed eight months ago in remodeling.

I assembled a crew and started with lunch. I should mention that my companions were devotees of Chuy's, which is just around the corner and sells piles of Tex-Mex and gallons of stiff frozen margaritas to raucous postcollegiate crowds. By contrast, Jalapenos is a blessedly quiet, calm room, populated mainly by fortysomethings, its open airy spaces painted in cheerful tones of deep raspberry and marine blue. The complimentary tortilla chips and two salsas (one red, one green) passed our taste test with flying colors. The chips are thick, crisp and salty, and I particularly like the red salsa, a roasted tomato version with dark, smoky undertones. My friends were impressed by the tomatillo sauce, green and pungent with cilantro, served piping hot.

"Ooh, there's a lot more to choose from here," noted one of the Chuy's fans, flipping excitedly through the three-page menu.

I spied the famous spinach enchiladas blanketed in cilantro cream sauce at tables all around me, but I opted instead for the new "son of spinach" edition with shrimp, dubbed Enchiladas Tampico ($9.95). This plate sports two large enchiladas, one red-sauced and one green, with a pile of fluffy white rice studded with yellow corn kernels and an order of glossy black beans. Inside the chewy tortillas, the spinach was tender and the shrimp big and meaty. The green tomatillo sauce is good, but I went crazy over the vibrant red guajillo chili sauce spiked with just a touch of chipotle, slopping it over the rice and swabbing it up with more tortillas. The plain rice acts as an admirable foil for the sauces in general, so I didn't miss the more common Spanish-style stuff. The black beans are blameless but I'll bet lower in fat than those served elsewhere; I confess I missed that lascivious aroma of lard.

We were also very happy with the tangy, bright chipotle sauce of the new shrimp chipotle entree ($12.95). Five big, brawny shrimp are split and stuffed with cheese and prickly-hot slivers of fresh jalapeno pepper then wrapped in bacon and grilled. The vivid orange-red sauce is a killer, sharper and more potent than its sibling guajillo sauce, which is also based on cream but permeated with the strong smoky flavor of chipotle peppers.

We tried the chicken fajitas ($10.95), important to our research as sort of a baseline for local Tex-Mex. The chicken was tenderly grilled and moist, underseasoned for my taste but judged just right by my friend. The meat is served with enough very lightly grilled onions and roasted green peppers to fill several of the small fresh flour tortillas, and the portions of guacamole and sour cream are plentiful. "I hate it when places don't give you enough stuff with your fajita meat," he noted approvingly. "It's nice to have plenty."

Lunch, we all agreed, was a success. Our next mission was to check out the evening bar menu. Jalapenos' weekday happy hour runs from 4:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., so we timed our foray late; after all, what can a bona fide food spy really learn from a free buffet? The plan was to capture a table on the new patio, but we found it completely full of very happy office workers, ties discarded and jackets askew, an empty margarita glass big as a birdbath rising ominously from the wreckage. Even the clay-potted plants looked tipsy. The patio made me nervous anyway: The area used to be one of the two driveways into the parking lot and is now marked off by a precariously tilting iron gate and a couple of flimsy orange parking cones. What if a crazed Kirby driver simply crashed through it? I wondered. Silly paranoid me, I felt safer inside at the bar. "Don't worry, the patio is only in its first phase," explained Romero. "It will look much better when we're done."

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